The Disney Approach To Human Capital
An Interview Article From Line Zine

I have always been an admirer of Disney's customer service and their systems to insure "customer delight", as opposed to just customer service. This means going far beyond the customer's expectations to deliver something extra, or above and beyond the call of duty every time. It means training, understanding by employees and empowerment that goes straight through the organization to back all this up with consistent management rewards and signals. This means praise and reward for employees who actually execute these principals and values, setting examples and sending a consistent message to employees and customers about your brand and values. Some companies talk about "quality" customer service, but then punish people when their "minutes per customer" allocation or other measures are exceeded, or when asked for something that is not standard just say "no" with no effort to handle exceptions. This is not a consistent message to employees and negates the training they received, preventing what Disney calls their "magic moments". This is applicable to almost any business and the goal of having every customer get something above and beyond what they expect not only drives repeat business, but also has been proven to generate superior profits and referral business. This is true customer service quality and walking the talk! --- Bob Norton

In keeping with LiNE Zine’s exploration of the human capital revolution, I visited the Disney Institute in Lake Buena Vista, Florida to glean their perspective on human capital. After all, who knows how to treat people better than The Walt Disney Company? In their theme parks, as well as in their merchandise locations and resorts, guests brightly mirror the smile on every employee’s face.

The Disney Institute provides business professionals with a unique opportunity to benchmark the “Disney approach” to business and management issues. Despite my giddy predisposition about anything sporting the Disney name, the word “institute” had me subconsciously anticipating a formidable, perhaps even austere, experience. I didn’t realize those expectations. As I first passed Disney Institute’s colorful studios, performance center, outdoor amphitheater, and cinema I was pleasantly surprised. My experience was anything but austere. The atmosphere, special treatment, entertaining, and knowledgeable facilitators, real world (Disney, that is) field experiences, and strategically positioned media events all resulted in a wonderfully pleasurable experience in Disney Institute’s laboratory for learning. What I did find formidable were the concepts, systems, and processes that the Disney Institute shares and the backstage work and creativity that make their programs possible.

I had the opportunity to audit part of a Disney Institute program, The Disney Approach to Quality Service for Healthcare Professionals, and then to talk with Larry Lynch, the Director of Business Development at the Disney Institute.

Emory: New economy thought leaders agree that human capital—the people, the knowledge, the ideas, the creativity—may be today’s most valuable commodity. The Walt Disney Company embraced this concept many years before it penetrated most other businesses. How did Disney evolve to this way of thinking?

Lynch: With us it goes back to Walt, who recognized that creating his special brand of theme park would take people. That’s one of the precepts for everything we teach at the Disney Institute. Walt was a visionary. He understood the value of the human component—that it’s the everyday human interaction between our cast members and our guests that genuinely makes the difference.

You attended one of our Quality Service programs. In that program—and in all Disney Institute programs—we share the processes and systems that we use here in Walt Disney World. Each process relies on the human component. In the 1950s when Walt was building Disneyland, he recognized and emphasized people as one of our core strengths.

Emory: Walt Disney is credited with a seemingly endless supply of optimism. And that optimism seems to play a significant role in the success of your company.

Lynch: I like to think we are all very optimistic. That’s probably a trait we bring to the company.

Emory: When I attended your Quality Service program, I learned that Disney puts huge effort towards hiring the right people, particularly people who can provide quality service. What kinds of people do you look for?

Lynch: Optimism is a key part of it. We are careful to hire what we call “right fit” talent. Walt recognized way back when that the “right fit” requires optimism, a positive attitude, plus the necessary skill set. These are all key components to great casting. We are in the entertainment business and we call our employment process casting. And we call our employees cast members.

Emory: In your casting process, how do you attract “right fit” people?

Lynch: For one thing, we have a program called “Casting Scout.” All of our employees are indeed casting scouts who look for the talent. Our cast members know what “right fit” looks like. They clearly understand the types of people we want as cast members.

In our People Management program, we take people through our casting center and let them share in the hiring process. The casting process itself is a process of entertainment—it’s actually a pleasurable experience. Think about when you’ve applied for a job—it’s not always pleasurable. The location is usually way out of the public eye. The information shared is basically, “Here’s an application. We’ll get back with you.” The process that we share is very different. There’s an element of self-screening and self-selection.

Those things—the Casting Scout program, the process that we go through, and the fact that the process is pleasurable—all combine to help us find “right fit” talent.

Emory: What methods do you use to promote excellence and to retain strong talent?

Lynch: First, as I said, we hire the “right-fit” talent. After that, we give them the training they need, communicate with them on a regular basis and reward and recognize them for their successes. Our training and communications programs provide our cast members with a clear-cut understanding of company expectations and give them the skills and information they need to do a good job.

Reward and recognition are key—on an individual basis. If you are a team member and your leader delivers a mass “thank you” to everybody, you may think, “but, I’ve done something more.” On the other hand, if your leader recognizes the overall team performance, and also recognizes your individual contributions and strengths, don’t you feel so much better? We use the term, VIP, Very Individual Person. VIP is a key element of our culture to drive employee recognition.

Emory: While attending your Quality Service program, I learned about your service standards and their priority of (1) safety, (2) courtesy, (3) show, and (4) efficiency. Disney obviously can’t anticipate and teach every possible guest situation, yet I can think of no situation that would not fall under one or more of your four service standards. They provide the basic knowledge to empower and liberate cast members to make sound decisions and follow through with action. Walt Disney himself said in talking about his organization, “As well as I can, I’m untying the apron strings.” What other examples can you share of how Disney empowers cast members?

Emory: In your casting process, how do you attract “right fit” people?

Lynch: For one thing, we have a program called “Casting Scout.” All of our employees are indeed casting scouts who look for the talent. Our cast members know what “right fit” looks like. They clearly understand the types of people we want as cast members.

In our People Management program, we take people through our casting center and let them share in the hiring process. The casting process itself is a process of entertainment—it’s actually a pleasurable experience. Think about when you’ve applied for a job—it’s not always pleasurable. The location is usually way out of the public eye. The information shared is basically, “Here’s an application. We’ll get back with you.” The process that we share is very different. There’s an element of self-screening and self-selection.

Those things—the Casting Scout program, the process that we go through, and the fact that the process is pleasurable—all combine to help us find “right fit” talent.

Emory: What methods do you use to promote excellence and to retain strong talent?

Lynch: First, as I said, we hire the “right-fit” talent. After that, we give them the training they need, communicate with them on a regular basis and reward and recognize them for their successes. Our training and communications programs provide our cast members with a clear-cut understanding of company expectations and give them the skills and information they need to do a good job.

Reward and recognition are key—on an individual basis. If you are a team member and your leader delivers a mass “thank you” to everybody, you may think, “but, I’ve done something more.” On the other hand, if your leader recognizes the overall team performance, and also recognizes your individual contributions and strengths, don’t you feel so much better? We use the term, VIP, Very Individual Person. VIP is a key element of our culture to drive employee recognition.

Emory: While attending your Quality Service program, I learned about your service standards and their priority of (1) safety, (2) courtesy, (3) show, and (4) efficiency. Disney obviously can’t anticipate and teach every possible guest situation, yet I can think of no situation that would not fall under one or more of your four service standards. They provide the basic knowledge to empower and liberate cast members to make sound decisions and follow through with action. Walt Disney himself said in talking about his organization, “As well as I can, I’m untying the apron strings.” What other examples can you share of how Disney empowers cast members?

Lynch: One example is our program called Take Five in which cast members take five minutes out of their day to proactively do something special for a guest. We call it being aggressively friendly. Our cast members look for opportunities for magic moments—those little things that happen for guests that are utter surprises. For example, a housekeeper in one of our resort hotels discovered that a guest was not feeling well so she took the time to get chicken soup from a resort restaurant and bring it back to the guest.

Emory: That would surprise and delight a customer.

Lynch: Exactly. The magic moments happen because everyone understands within the service standards that they are empowered to proactively do something special.

A letter from a guest who attended a Disney Institute program illustrates another example. While having lunch at the California Grill the guest mentioned to a cast member that he wanted to come back for dinner. The reservation list was full, but the cast member offered to work on it. Throughout lunch the cast member was on the phone, and at the end came back to say he was still working on it. Later that afternoon, the guest received a note with the time and reservation number for The California Grill. To add to that magic moment, the guest’s party had a special seat by a window and the cast member stopped in that evening to make sure that his party was seated and enjoying dinner. Those kinds of magic moments can happen when you understand the deliverables on the service standard. The cast member received praise and recognition from leaders within our organization and the action will come back to him a hundred fold.

Emory: I felt several of those magic moments first-hand as your Disney Institute team went far beyond my expectations to make sure that my stay was as pleasurable as could be and that I received optimal insight and information.

I’d like to challenge you a bit now. It’s clear that Disney places a high value on cast members. But, it's easy for employers to value human capital when faced with employees whom they see as strong contributors. What about the mere mortals who perhaps make more than their share of mistakes?

Lynch: At Disney, we have developmental plans that connect our performance with our company business plans. On Broadway a performer who’s not right for a role can often be recast. We do the same thing here. If it doesn’t work, we give them an opportunity to explore areas within our company where they can succeed. While you do the right things like measure performance against the business plan, and provide recognition and rewards, you know at the end of the day, there is the opportunity to recast for a different role—one that provides for that “right-fit.” Remember, it’s all about the positive experience—even mere mortals have the need to succeed.

Emory: I have an excellent example of recasting. During the program I attended, George Miliotis, manager of The California Grill, told the group about an excellent server who just couldn’t master the cash register. Miliotis tried interventions like talking with the server, retraining, and shadowing another server, but nothing worked. Miliotis then worked with the cast member to identify a “right fit” situation. As a result, that cast member moved to a banquet type operation where he didn’t have to operate a cash register, but still serve people in the same way.

Lynch: That’s a great example. Here you have a cast member who instead of being humiliated has the opportunity to say, “I can still be successful.” And he probably will be.

Emory: There seems to be a strong sense of community amongst Disney cast members. How does this sense of community benefit your business?

Lynch: Tremendously. The sense of community allows us to formulate the right elements of teamwork. People may work well individually, but a valuable strength comes from our ability to pull together as a team.

Emory: What would you recommend to other organizations to help build this sense of community?

Lynch: As we teach at the Disney Institute, there are ways of communicating within the organization that will foster affiliation and achievement and that will supercede rivalry within any team. Most organizations have lots of high achievers. Many team building programs exist to help them get to know each other. When it’s over, they may hug and walk away, but when they walk back to their workplaces they’re not sure what they accomplished. They had a great time, but they don’t know where to go next.

We take participants through a series of exercises that help them recognize the need for balance. They may be high achievers, but they will achieve on an even higher level as they understand each other better. You find the right blend of affiliation, then manage the element of achievement so that within that affiliation everybody comes out as a high achiever. We don’t want an individual to achieve at the expense of others on the team. We try to get people to understand, within the context of their own organizations, what it takes to create the elements of community.

Emory: Your cast members seem to delight in their work. That’s obvious by the smiles on their faces and their seemingly endless energy level. What can a company do to foster and nourish this kind of dedication?

Lynch: It’s about leadership to connect and align the organization’s vision. An organization has to stand for something beyond just making money. When leaders communicate the vision and get everybody aligned and focused, the result is a group that has the dedication you see within our cast members. They all understand the vision and mission and their roles to deliver outstanding guest service every day.

Disney treasures the assets brought by our cast members—our human capital. For an in depth look at our leadership and people management programs and processes, I’d invite LiNE Zine readers to come to the Disney Institute to see, first-hand, what we do.

Larry Lynch is Director of Business Development at Disney Institute located at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. He is the key executive responsible for the programming direction of the business, with sales, program design, facilitation, and operations reporting to him. In addition to his years as an association executive, Larry’s nine years of police experience qualify him as a “life-long people-learner.”

For more information about Disney Institute programs, call 407-566-2660 or visit www.disneyinstitute.com.

Cheryl Emory is a contributing editor for LiNE Zine and principal consultant for Performance Designs in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to writing and consulting, Emory stays busy helping two daughters get through their teenage years, advocating for persons with special needs, supporting local theatre, and spending time with her husband.

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